When is a Pine not a Pine? And what’s in a name anyway?

Early European explorers of the Southern Hemisphere appear to have had a great desire to view their newly discovered worlds* as extensions of their motherland. The British, in particular, saw a little bit of Britain in most of the places they visited. Yet, for the resemblance that many of these places had for their original namesake locations in the northern Hemisphere, I can only conclude that these early seafarers must have been suffering from homesick-induced acute astigmatism. British explorers saw fit to compare land that was as remote and arid as they could endure with the lush countryside of South Wales, Salem, Albany and Bath! Some of these Southern Hemisphere namesakes resemble the original British landscapes about as closely as a sunny, clover covered playing field resembles a dune during a dust devil. Both regions have soil and weather, but that’s about where the similarities end.

Pic 1: The small cones of Microcachrys only superficially resemble strawberries.
Pic 1: The small cones of Microcachrys only superficially resemble strawberries (Photo credit: Rob Wiltshire).

British explorers were also terribly uninventive with their names: New South Wales, New Caledonia, New England[1]. This platitudinous naming style extended to plants, and so we have the king billy pine, pencil pine, celery top pine, and the strawberry pine[2]! Apparently the qualifying trait for being called a “pine” was the possession of a stem and green leaves. Now, perhaps I should be more lenient on the British explorers for their banal approach to nomenclature; Shouldn’t we attribute a lack of originality to scurvy or some weird tropical disease and move on? After all, surely one of the uses of a name is to identify something? I am willing to concede this when it comes to place names: afterall, most people know where New South Wales is or are unlikely to mistake the South African city of East London for a spot on the east bank of the Thames. Unfortunately, I cannot be so generous when it comes to the naming of biological organisms.

Pic 2: Athrotaxis selaginoides (pencil pine) at home in a tarn in Tasmania.
Pic 2: Athrotaxis selaginoides (pencil pine) at home in a tarn in Tasmania.

Many common names of biological organisms do not even get over the first hurdle of uniquely identifying an organism. The Cabbage Tree, for example, is a wonderful, large tree in South Africa (Cussonia), but a type of palm in New Zealand (Cordyline australis). So, common names of plants are often dull and fail to distinguish between two different organisms; we’re not off to a good start. And it gets worse…My much larger, concern with common plant names is that they omit any indication of evolutionary relatedness. To understand what this means and why it is important, we need to understand how scientific names are given to organisms.

Pic 2: This New Zealand cabbage tree (Cordyline) looks nothing like South Africa's cabbage tree (Cussonia).
Pic 3: This New Zealand cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) looks nothing like South Africa’s cabbage tree (Cussonia).

Carl Linneaus, the father of modern taxonomy, in 1753 published one of the most influential texts of modern taxonomy called Species Plantarum. In it, Linnaeus described the system of binomial nomenclature, where each species is given two latin names: one for the genus to which it belongs and the other for the species. The system works by grouping individuals sharing similar characteristics into either genera or species: individuals within a species share more characteristics than those within a genus. For example, members of our own species, Homo sapiens (i.e. humans), all share more traits with other Homo sapiens than we do with members of a different species of the same genus, such as Homo erectus (extinct early man). As we move up the tree of relatedness, we observe that we share even fewer characteristics with species of a different genus, such as Pan troglodytes (i.e. Chimpanzees). Knowing the genus and species of an organism helps us to provide a broader evolutionary context for each different organism, which common names often do not capture.

The case for preferring scientific names over common names can be made using the pines that I mentioned earlier: the king billy pine, pencil pine, celery top pine and the strawberry pine. None of these species are pines. True pines are members of the Pinaceae (they belong to the genus Pinus[3]) and were, prior to human intervention, (almost) entirely restricted to the Northern hemisphere[4]. The Pinaceae were named after the Greek Pites, which is a term for resin (This is also apparently the derivation of Pituitary gland). However, none of the Australian “pines” belong within the Pinaceae; instead they belong to sister families (Podocarpaceae, Cupresaceae and Araucariaceae) and only some produce resin. The southern group of “pines” have a very different evolutionary story to tell from the Pinaceae: a story (mostly) of Gondwana, as opposed to Laurasia[5] . The mutual reference to the term pines is based on superficial similarities in the appearances of the leaves and confuses the true evolutionary relatedness of these organisms.

Pic 3: Phyllocladus asplenifolius has stems which look like leaves.
Pic 4: Phyllocladus asplenifolius has stems which look like leaves.

Quite apart from providing accurate evolutionary context for different species, the scientific names are also often more descriptive and informative. The genus of Phyllocladus, for example, is derived from the fact that the “leaves” are not leaves at all, but are modified stems called phyllodes. The common name for Phyllocladus, the celery top pine, was given to describe the superficial resemblance to celery. To name it after a celery is not only tenuous, but also misses the information captured by the scientific name. The same can be said for the strawberry pine, whose female cones only superficially resemble a strawberry[6]. Microcachrys (meaning “little cone”) more than adequately captures the reproductive structures of this species.

Protea, a wonderfully diverse genus in South Africa's Fynbos.
Pic 5: Protea is a wonderfully diverse genus in South Africa’s Fynbos.

My final gripe with common names is that scientific names often tell evocative stories. Proteus was a Greek god who had the ability to elusively change shape. The Proteaceae, a diverse family of plants occurring mostly in South Africa’s Fynbos and Australia’s South West floral regions, is named after this God. Species of the Proteaceae exhibit an incredibly diverse array of leaf morphologies: some, like Leucadendron argenteum (from the latin argenteus meaning silver) have incredibly hairy, reflective leaves giving them a silver appearance, while others are bright yellow. Some leaves are smooth, while others, including several Banksia species, have serrated margins[7].

Pic 5: Leucadendron argenteum has remarkably silver leaves.
Pic 6: Leucadendron argenteum has remarkably silver leaves.

So what’s in a name? If it’s a scientific name it may actually contain quite a bit, including fascinating tales, history and a bit of evolutionary context. Latin may be a “dead language”, but it breathes life into botanical nomenclature.


*”Newly discovered” for them, at least.

[1] In contrast, early Dutch settlers seem to have been far more descriptive in naming places: In South Africa, for example, one finds many wonderfully descriptive or evocative place names in Afrikaans, such as  “Bloemfontein” (flower fountain), “Vergenoegd” (Far enough! I can just imagine the conversation among two, tired early adventurers: “Jannie, where have we come to now?!” “Far enough, Petra!”) and “Riviersonderend” (River without an end).

[2] The practise of naming every conifer after a pine seems to still exist: as recently as 1994 living specimens of a species known previously from 120 m year old fossils (Wollemia of Araucariaceae) was called the Wollomi pine.

[3] Many Pinus species are widely used in forestry and will be familiar to most people

[4] One species, Pinus merkusii, crosses the equator in Sumatra and is found as far as 2°S.

[5] My next blog post (Thoroughly modern conifers) explores these stories in more detail.

[6] Although “Creeping pine” has also been used to describe Microcachrys, this is shared with several other species.

[7] Joseph Banks was the official botanist on board the HMS Endeavour from 1768 to 1771 on its voyage around the southern hemisphere and which was captained by Captain James Cook. His is a remarkable story captivatingly told in “The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes and I strongly suggest reading it.

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